Saturday, July 11, 2009

New Favourites: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Soicety by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The last time I finished an entire novel in one day was when the last Harry Potter book came out. And then this book came my way. After relishing each letter (pun intended) thoroughly, I looked up to find that the entire day had passed and I was sitting with a finished book. Completely unexpected, it really was that good.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (henceforth Guernsey; note to self: please find out how to properly pronounce the darned name and stop putting e's after Potato) is a novel composed of the written correspondence between a fictional "light journalist"/writer Juliet Ashton and her friends, especially those residing on the small English Channel island of Guernsey. I don't want to spoil the story by telling you what happens, because I know I'll gush over it and tell you everything. But to give you a hint, the novel gives you a taste of life in England during and directly after World War II, moving from the mundane aspects of daily life, to the most emphatic emotional scenes available to the human imagination.

There were times when I found myself laughing out loud (e.g. the teapot throwing incident), and times when I felt the need to pause and reflect on the nature of humanity, both good and bad. There were even times when I felt like crying, for reasons both good and bad. Although, now that I think about it, that might just have been me being overly sensitive (thank you, PMS). All in all, this book is definitely a feel-good story with substance and will lift your spirits right up. This ain't your Bergdorf Blonde's story about her handbag that was to be had and just could not. No m'dears. This be a meaningful and downright funny story about humanity at both its best and worst, but without making you contemplate ending your life.

Part of the fun of the book comes from the actual format. Everyone loves to pry and eavesdrop, and I'm no exception to this, although I'm more inclined to blame it on "human nature". All that aside, everyone likes to know about everyone else's business, and this book feeds on that. Part of my reason for reading was that I was intrigued by the letters and wanted to dig deeper into Juliet's life, and the lives of her friends. I wanted to know what would be revealed in the next letter, and I can honestly say that I was never disappointed. (Side note: this was better than prying through real mail, since bills, oh how odious, never made an appearance.)

Shaffer and Barrows truly used their form to develop characters and the plot in ways that wouldn't have been possible otherwise. For example, the use of character reference letters for Juliet worked to create dimension and lay out her personality in a way that is unusal (and very interesting, very fresh). Juliet's essential goodness and stubborn adherence to justice goes from being a 2-D trait into a 3-D trait when we find out that she's used 2 people as her character references, one an individual who truly approves of her, and the other an individual who is confounded by her. The character reference letters themselves develop Juliet in juxtaposition to these characters while providing insight into the reference-providers. It's all a wonderful, complicated way of building shadow and light into the texture of the narrative. Brava, ladies!

Another point that endears
Guernsey to me is the fact that so much of the narrative revolves around the act of reading. Correspondence regularly includes mention of authors, books, and the joys of reading. These allusions work to expand the book's reach from beyond the small fictional world into the wider social world. It's interesting to note the similarities and differences between the authors and works discussed in the book in relation to the lives and times of those who are discussing them. Furthermore, any book that celebrates the good that reading can bring is almost always guaranteed to go up a grade with me. Shaffer and Barrows are able to seamlessly blend reading and books into their story about love found and lost. Fantastic!

For me personally
Guernsey has truly become a favourite. I'm definitely re-reading it soon, and will probably go back to it a few times over. It's got the perfect balance of humour and harrowing experience to satisfy me. The characters are real, and fresh. The narrative flows at a good pace. It speaks volumes without requiring as much space. However, as much as I love it, I know that not everyone will enjoy reading it. Thus, my recommendations follow.

Guernsey is not for anyone who:
  • dislikes reading about World War II or the holocaust in any way whatsoever
  • needs a thriller, murder mystery, or fast-paced plot
  • is looking for chick-lit of the usual commodified form (as in revolving around money, clothes, shoes, and shopping)
  • dislikes reading about reading or books
  • requires a darker feel to their reading choice (e.g. gothic, graphic, etc.)
Guernsey is for anyone who:
  • loves reading and enjoys narratives that play on people's love for books
  • enjoys reading about times gone by, particularly that of England post-WWII
  • is looking for a feel-good book with substance
  • wants something different to read other than the same old regular prose

Delving Into Classics: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

A couple of days ago, I finally finished my reading of Charlotte Bronte's novel, Jane Eyre. My black leather-bound copy did not at first appear to be so very thick, comprising of a mere 38 chapters, and 408 pages. However, it has taken me a full month at least to finally close the covers.

Charlotte's style of writing was a little difficult to penetrate at first, but only because I didn't quite comprehend how to read the numerous semi-colons and colons. Was I meant to pause at these like I do usually with colons in contemporary writing, or did she mean to use them in another way? I concluded through the process of reading the first couple of chapters that I would accord them the pause that I deemed adequate to suit what I believed Charlotte may have meant.

I picked up
Jane Eyre at the urgent recommendation of Dianne Setterfield's main character, her narrator, in The Thirteenth Tale, who claimed that Jane Eyre was a favourite read. As a kindred spirit, the character's love of this classic made it important that I read it to find out what the big deal was, to be very honest. So, I made a mental note to myself to Make Sure I Read JANE EYRE. Unfortunately, quite a bit of time has elapsed since my making that mental note, and I again crossed the title while perusing reading options post-Jane Austen.

As any good Janeite/Austen-lover, I had faithfully purchased and read all six of Miss Austen's published novels, and having thoroughly enjoyed every single word written by that marvelous author, was now in despair over what could possibly ensnare my attention as well as she had.

Enter the glorious machine of web-searching, Google, in the never-ending booklover's quest for new reading material. As I continued to search far and wide on the great plains of the world wide web for a book that would reunite me with my lost pleasure in reading post-Austen, one suggestion kept reappearing until my curiousity piqued to the point where I knew I had found The One (For The Moment). Namely, I decided to finally give into all those cosmic hints and ran to my nearest bookstore and picked up my very own copy of
Jane Eyre.

Normally I'm not the type of person that takes very long to read a book. In fact, it's almost unheard of for me to take one whole month to read one book. Not to brag, but I
did finish the seventh Harry Potter book in a single day (and then went back to re-read it afterwards to enjoy it some more). So, the fact that it took me so long to get through Jane may suggest things that I don't necessarily believe (e.g. the book is boring, the writing style unreadable, a pointless plot, etc.). On the contrary, I believe the exact opposite, and here's why.

First, after getting over my confusion regarding colon-use, Charlotte's use of language is quite probably of the finest quality I've come across in a long time. Her descriptions of the natural environment, use of dialogue both internal and between characters, and really just about everything was fantastic and first-rate. However, one of my favourite bits of writing in the novel revolve around Charlotte's descriptions of nature. My particularly favourite part comes at the very beginning of chapter 23, page 220 in my version (Worth Press Limited), where Charlotte sets the scene for Jane and Mr. Rochester's evening meeting. I can't, for fear of copyright issues reproduce the passage I adore in its entirety, but I can give you a taste of Charlotte's genius and poetic writing. In this passage, Charlotte is describing the sky and time of day.

"It was now the sweetest hour of the twenty-four: - 'Day its fervid fires had wasted,' and dew fell cool on panting plain and scorched summit. Where the sun had gone down in simple state - pure of the pomp of clouds - spread a solemn purple, burning with the light of red jewel and furnace flame at one point, on one hill-peak, and extending high and wide, soft and still softer, over half heaven. The east had its own charm of fine deep blue, and its own modest gem, a rising and solitary star: soon it would boast the moon; but she was yet beneath the horizon." (Bronte, Charlotte -
Jane Eyre)

I particularly enjoy the animism present in this passage, a theme that is ever-present through the novel. This type of loving, admiration-filled description of nature doesn't appear very often in contemporary literature, and it's something that I miss. Related to Charlotte's use of animism in her descriptions of nature is her constant allusions to classic Greek and Roman mythology. It adds just the right amount of fantasy to this gloomy, gothic tale.

Another reason I truly enjoyed reading
Jane so much stems from an appreciation of feminist roots in the novel. Mind you, I'm not saying that Charlotte wrote a bible for feminists but what I would like to suggest is that it's not plausible that many women of the 19th century would have the perseverence and strength to successfully survive what Jane did in the novel. Charlotte made a point that although the world was biased against women in general, it didn't mean that a woman had to lie down and give up everything. Quite the opposite, at times when I myself thought I would've died if I had been in Jane's shoes, Jane fought tooth and nail to keep herself going. Although she didn't slap Mr. Rivers as I would have had I been in her place, she was able to think for herself and act to ensure her own well-being. How many women the 19th century (or in any century for that matter, ours included) are encouraged to think for themselves and work to keep themselves self-sufficient and independent?

There were, however, points at which I felt that justice hadn't been done with Jane's character (e.g. her "escape" from Thornfield and Mr. Rochester), but I realize that what I may have preferred for Jane to do would have taken away from her realization as a human, and thus, imperfect creature. All of which brings me to my third point.

Charlotte was able to create really believable characters. No one person that appears in the novel is really perfect or immune to human deficiencies. Similarly, all characters are subject to development through the novel, especially our very own Jane Eyre. None of the characters remain static effigies, stereotypes set in stone that react predictably through the course of things. They are all constantly shifting, changing, dynamic, and surprised me with their unique, human responses.

Now, having said so much about the novel, one would assume that I would give this book "favourite" status, and I would have except that I'm not completely in love with it. I do believe that I will most likely re-read
Jane Eyre in the future at some point, but it's frankly a little too gloomy and depressing at times. Actually, let me rephrase that. The tone of the novel tends to be a little gothic, and that's a genre that I feel completely alienated from, not being a fan of scaring or crying myself to sleep.

Now, for my recommendations of
Jane Eyre...

Jane Eyre is not for anyone who
  • can't stand the English language from a period beyond the last 50 years
  • who needs a fast-paced plot
  • enjoys action more than description
  • doesn't give a hoot about nature, love, or both
  • is looking for a feel-good book
Jane Eyre is for anyone who
  • is looking for a deep read
  • enjoys sinking their teeth into heavy prose
  • relishes a good gothic/thriller novel
  • doesn't mind darker tomes in a novel
Here's hoping I didn't bore you with my review!